Thank goodness Uber came along, because America had been in need of a heel to root against for a while now.
Big tobacco once held that crown, but a dramatic drop in smoking rates coupled with bans on advertising has helped blunt both the reach of tobacco companies and the enmity they conjure. The energy industry has a bad reputation, but with the Deepwater Horizon disaster receding further into the horizon and oil prices low, oil companies have been enjoying a bit of a détente with the American consumer. The wireless companies don’t have many admirers, but thanks partly to John Legere’s strange brand of corporate trash talking (or cyberbullying?), they’ve walked back many of their most egregious practices. The GMO peddlers of Big Agriculture do it for some folks, but they lack leaders willing to enter the arena and have boos rain down on them.
As I note in this month’s Fast Company cover story, Uber, which recently raised funds at a valuation of $51 billion, seems to be the perfect vessel to contain our collective anxieties about, well, all the issues roiling society today. Worried about jobs? Uber is a convenient stand-in for shifts in employment that have been taking place for several decades. Concerned about computer algorithms playing a larger role in deciding what we pay for a product or service at a given time? Uber, again, is a poster child for dynamic pricing, although this idea has existed forever and spread to event tickets, consumer goods, and was even tested in vending machines long before the ride-sharing company existed. Fretting over municipal governments’ inability to serve its denizens with public services? Uber is a perfect shorthand for those who would reflexively demonize a private company fulfilling a civic role. Anxious about data? Surveillance? The way technology companies are challenging traditional industries? Uber is there to soak up any and all frustration over changes many simply wish weren’t happening and would go away.
And yet we're more than happy to keep the black-and-silver icon on our phones, allowing us to push a button and have an inexpensive ride arrive a few minutes later.
This love-hate relationship now has a name: Uber Angst. In the wake of the scandal late last year over comments made by an Uber senior executive that seemed to suggest the company would conduct opposition research into the private lives of journalists, the New York Times noted the increasingly conflicted feelings that Uber’s customers have about the company. On one hand, many want to hate Uber; on the other, they really, really like using it. After all, Uber is generally way cheaper than a taxi and easier to use.
"I did delete it for a few weeks," a friend of mine recently admitted when I texted him to ask whether he suffered from Uber Angst. He’d tried to bring himself to use Lyft, Uber’s pink mustachioed, feel-good competitor. He really had. But it never took hold, and eventually he reinstalled the Uber app and went right back to requesting super-cheap rides. "It’s back now and I love it," he added. "But please note, I am still ‘outraged.’" The scare quotes were his, but they speak for the nation.
During the five months I spent working on the Fast Company profile of founder Travis Kalanick, I spent a lot of time wondering why exactly the company had managed to attract so much bile. Because when you start digging into the actual complaints, they tend to be contradictory. To wit: Uber has been criticized for charging too much for certain rides; and just as vociferously lambasted for charging not enough. It has been charged with improperly handling reams of data that it generates about trips, but a similar argument could be leveled against Google, Facebook, or pretty much any other American company. (Bullseye, Target!) Moreover, all the data means that when you hail an Uber, you create a paper trail that can be used by cops and deter attacks, which makes taking an Uber almost certainly safer than hailing a random cab (especially in places like Mexico City, where taxi-based kidnapping has long been a problem).
One of the most persistent criticisms has centered around Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his perceived personality defects, thanks in large part to a frat-boy style crack to a GQ reporter about his lady-killing abilities and his display, in an interview with the Washington Post, of a working knowledge of the basic precepts underpinning Ayn Rand’s work. I’ll grant you, either of these statements might have caused me to back away at a cocktail party, but they’re hardly mortal sins. Kalanick has a live-in girlfriend, and the Ayn Rand meme has been blown to Hindenburgian proportions. The ne plus ultra of Randian paranoia can be found here, in a 2,500-word screed that argues that Kalanick represents a "creepy, dangerous ideology," even though the argument mostly rests not on Kalanick’s actual statements in support of Rand, which are few and far between, but on the fact that lots of entrepreneurs have a thing for her Objectivist philosophy. You’re more than welcome to find that icky, but it doesn’t say much about Uber.
Moreover, there’s nothing to suggest that Kalanick is a committed ideologue, and in fact, lots of evidence to suggest just the opposite. (He attended President Obama’s inauguration; he’s in favor of Obamacare. In fact, what critics often miss is just how flexible Uber has been.) The service is not a monolith, but has instead adapted its offerings to the particularities of each market it enters. As I learned, Kalanick has no problem adopting contrarian positions or contradicting a previous proclamation, either to cause a rise or to ingratiate himself with an audience. This is not a company that, as many have argued, steamrolls into cities, but rather one that is constantly contorting itself—through a mixture of lobbying, local PR, and grassroots activism—to convince cities of its legality. Does hiring lobbyists make a company inherently bad? Then every single large company in America is bad.
What’s lost in this collective frenzy to demonize Uber (all while we take 2 million rides a day with the service) is that it is actually good for the world. The company’s ride-sharing service, UberPool, will almost certainly reduce greenhouse gasses, while making car ownership less attractive. Moreover, even as many Silicon Valley companies can be tsk-tsked for focusing their services on the affluent or the very lazy, Uber is the rare startup that explicitly focuses its energies on serving lower-middle class people, both by giving them work and providing transit connections to neighborhoods that are underserved. Kalanick told me that Uber was seriously considering eventually expanding to buses, which he called "the ultimate carpool machine." Buses can hardly be conflated with elitism.
I’ve lived in New York City’s outer boroughs for a decade, first in Brooklyn and now in Queens, and I can tell you that Uber has made life dramatically easier on those who can’t afford a Manhattan apartment or to live especially close to a subway stop. Back in the old days, if you wanted to take a taxi home—either because you had something heavy to carry or because it was late at night—the city’s iconic yellow cab drivers generally flat-out refused to take you to a borough. If you managed to get in the cab, they might simply drive around in circles, with the meter running, until you got out, miles away from your destination. And they also routinely racially profiled passengers and refused to take anyone to neighborhoods like Harlem that are predominantly African American. (Think I’m exaggerating? Just listen to the head of New York State’s taxi federation.) All of this is a violation of the city’s taxi rules, not to mention being morally wrong.
Uber drivers, who are more willing to go to less dense neighborhoods because it’s easy to find another fare using the app, never argue about a destination (at least not in my experience), and seem less likely to reject passengers for any reason. Earlier this year, when my wife was getting ready to have a baby, our Lamaze teacher warned us that yellow cabs frequently refuse to take women who are in labor to the hospital; Uber not only doesn’t refuse service, it gives happy parents a baby onesie and takes the driver to a basketball game.
Does Uber raise uncomfortable questions about the future of our economy? Does Travis Kalanick seem like an extremely fierce competitor, ruthlessly slashing costs? Yes. But one could easily level both charges against Amazon.com, and even Uber’s most strident critics know that Amazon Prime is awesome.
So to my friends with Uber Angst, I’m here to tell you: stop worrying. It’s okay to use Uber. The service is pretty great. And you don’t even have to profess outrage—or "outrage."